What is it about St. Bernard Parish? Anyone growing up in New Orleans knew it as the funky but lovable setting for Rocky & Carlo's Restaurant & Bar. A salt of the earth suburb, it was once home to rustic communities of trappers and fishermen before the tracts of boxy brick houses and sugar and oil refineries that proliferated after World War II invited comparisons with the New Jersey Turnpike. Hurricane Katrina nearly obliterated St. Bernard Parish, but the residents who returned to rebuild set a standard for pluck and determination that garnered well-deserved national attention. Even so, it is unclear why it has attracted Scandinavian photographers in recent years. First, Daneeta and Patrick Jackson, natives of Louisiana and Sweden, respectively, exhibited their haunting Chalmatia series at the Contemporary Arts Center last year. Now Icelandic lensman Fridgeir Helgason's Da Parish images are on view at the Scott Edwards Gallery.
The product of a three-year sojourn in St. Bernard, Helgason's images are reminders of how a once verdant place teeming with wildlife was transformed into something very different. In Christmas 2011 (pictured), a modest suburban ranch-style home festooned with holiday decorations appears almost lost in a setting dominated by a vast, hulking refinery complex. Similarly, a view of opposing rows of stately oaks conjures expectations of a regal antebellum estate, but no, that romantic vista leads to a refinery. A view of the blandly inviting facade of Rocky & Carlo's instantly humanizes a series that some might find archly ironic or austere. In fact, Da Parish is a visual meditation on the ordinary. Predating the advent of the artist enclaves now popping up in Old Arabi, it is what it is: an unvarnished depiction of a place in transition during a pivotal period of time. Its epiphanies are of the starkly existential variety. Seen through Helgason's eyes, it is almost possible to imagine the ghost of Soren Kierkegaard haunting the hubub at Rocky & Carlo's. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT